Women in sport: a conversation with Eleanor Oldroyd

Things are getting better for women in broadcasting, but there is still a long way to go.

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A female cricketer runs for the ball wearing a blue cricket strip
Mithali Raj in July 2012

To listeners of 5 live, Eleanor Oldroyd’s voice will be a familiar one. The broadcaster, who started her career on BBC Radio Shropshire, now covers a broad range of sport from the Winter Olympics to Wimbledon tennis, scooping up two ‘Sports Journalists’ Association Broadcast Presenter of the Year’ awards along the way. She’s always been a devotee of sport; when I meet her in her home in London, she tells me with a laugh that whilst “some girls had posters on their walls of pop stars, I was taking The Cricketer magazine”. When she was at school, she bargained herself a day off to go to Lord’s on the grounds that she wanted to be The Times’ first female cricket correspondent – although this never materialised, she’s gone on to be a trailblazer as a woman in the industry. We talk how she thinks the business has changed, both for the players and the reporters.

I ask her what it was like breaking into an industry in the 1980s where women were so few and far between. She admits that her appointment was “extremely unusual”, and that there were definitely colleagues who would have thought it “completely wrong and mad” to have her in a press box, but she remained resolute: “my boss sent me to do it … they trusted me”.

Thirty-odd years later the number of women reporting on sport is certainly rising, but equality is still far away. Figures from 2018 reveal that Clare Balding’s salary is around 10% of what football presenter Gary Lineker earns, and a quick internet search of ‘female sports reporters’ brings up the top result of ‘Hottest Sports Reporters: Photo List of Sexy Female Sideline Reporters’ from Ranker. In spite of this, Oldroyd is still encouraged by the changing scene in broadcasting: “The opportunities are much, much greater than they were 30 years ago”, and she’s right that the likes of Gabby Logan and Alison Mitchell are changing the faces of sport on television.

Oldroyd’s beloved sport is cricket, a game that, perhaps more so than most, remains mostly male-dominated; the MCC only started accepting women members in 1998, after 212 years of male exclusivity. An excruciating interview with Michael Vaughan and Michael Slater in 2013 sees them ask two female players (Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry) how they physically cope with playing cricket, only to compliment them later for being attractive, the camera lingering on photos of them in bikinis. For women, the game itself is also limited: boundaries are made smaller and test matches are spread over four days not five. Amid coverage of five men’s test matches in the same year, the women were given six minutes of airtime.

When we talk about the changes in the women’s game, however, the reporter seems hopeful for the future: “There are little things all the time that make me think ‘Wow that’s really changed’”. A Wisden cricket periodical published earlier this month carried a feature in which male and female wicket-keepers are spoken about with parity. Similarly, Adam Gilchrist, the great Australian wicket-keeper, tweeted that he judged Sarah Taylor to be the best wicket-keeper in the world at the moment; in the face of international players such as Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow, Oldroyd thinks this is “fantastic”. In her opinion, the rhetoric is changing, moving away from discussions about the value of women’s sport and towards “intelligent and informed conversations now about the quality of players”.

The broadcaster attributes some of the changes in the publicity of women’s cricket to player Rachel Heyhoe-Flint (who became one of the first female members of the MCC), saying: “She was unusual because she was relatively high profile, she promoted the team, captaining and then going to write match reports and sending them to The Telegraph and insisting that they were published”. In light of this, I ask whether she thinks it takes a charismatic maverick, say the tennis player Billie Jean King, to change the image of a sport; she says the progress is necessarily “multifaceted”, that the individuals must also be lifted by the broadcasters.

Following on from King, she talks about the high-profile sportswomen in the limelight at the start of the broadcaster’s career, such as Mary Peters and Martina Navratilova, and I wonder why it is that individual sports seem to have more success with publicity. Oldroyd suggests it could be “competing on the same day, on the same track as the men”. It certainly makes sense – we talk about the ban on women’s football using FA accredited grounds from 1921 to 1971 and how this might have affected the game: “It was sending out the message that women’s football, and women’s team sports more generally, was an inferior version of the men’s game”. It seems that this university’s policy of, where possible, hosting men’s and women’s varsities on the same day does, then, carry some weight in the drive for equality.

Regarding progress, “the willingness is there in the governing bodies” she tells me. The England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have confirmed their new ‘100-ball’ tournament, in which tickets to the men’s and women’s games will be sold together in packages to encourage attendance. Aside from cricket, she praises Manchester City Football Club who are now promoting the men and women on the same web page “which is huge”. A theme that keeps cropping up in our conversation is the importance of talking about male and female sport with parity, and I’m sure that publishing both of the university’s football clubs’ match reports in the same place can only bolster interest in the women’s game. Lastly, she tells me about rugby which, although she suggests the RFU are “not quite there yet”, is also starting to contract female players and pay them properly. Many of them now don’t need another full-time job to support themselves, a persistent hindrance to the development of the women’s game. Watching the women’s varsity at Twickenham last week, it really did feel like this was a sport gaining momentum.

Although Eleanor Oldroyd gives me lots of encouraging examples of the changes in women’s sport, she acknowledges that there is still a long way to go. I ask her if she still thinks there are significant barriers to women from the emerging generation entering the industry: “Yes, is the short answer”. Social media, in her opinion, is one of the biggest inhibitors of success for women, both athletes and broadcasters. She tells me that “those old-fashioned attitudes do still exist” and that now “the ease with which people can shout abuse at you is horrible”. It is nothing new to say that the anonymity of Twitter gives a greater platform to unwarranted, retrograde opinions, and Oldroyd seems to think this can be particularly harmful to women in sport. Despite covering her first football match in 1986, she reveals she largely refrains from tweeting about football to avoid the vitriol from followers who act “as if their masculinity is threatened”. Undeterred, her advice to those who hope to participate in, or report on, sport is to “listen to the voices of the people who are supporting you, and don’t listen to the constant chatter”.

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